At home with the Riviera set

The Côte d’Azur between the wars was one of the great playgrounds of the world. Aristocrats, artists and film stars flocked to the area, basking in the sun at Eden Roc, drinking Champagne at Chez Joseph, driving sports cars along the promenade. It was a place to see and to be seen.

Now an intimate and unexpected portrait of high society in the French Riviera from the 1930s until the 1960s has come to light in Edinburgh in the form of hundreds of photographs taken by journalist and photographer Alfredo Quaglino.

The collection, much of which has never been published, reveals the famous faces of the period in rare unguarded moments.

Picasso plays with his children Claude and Paloma, Erroll Flynn has his portrait painted by a pavement artist, a coquettish Norma Shearer offers her hand to be kissed by a young man in sailor dress, Orson Welles laughs at a long forgotten joke, surrealist artist and writer Jean Cocteau plays table football with a friend.

The images are remarkable both in the range of personalities they feature and in their informality. The Aga Khan sits chatting with Rita Hayworth, Somerset Maugham works in his study, Laurel and Hardy play around with a bottle of Chianti and a plate of spaghetti, Brigitte Bardot is caught in a romantic clinch with French actor Jacques Charrier, Colette is helped into a car, Queen Maria Jose of Italy strides along in the sun with her daughter.

"They are such intimate pictures, he must have had a friendship with a lot of these people," says John Jarvis Smith DSC, who is selling the collection, which will be auctioned at Lyon & Turnbull in Edinburgh on 17 November. "Picasso was not an easy man at all, he would never have allowed himself to be photographed unless it was by somebody he knew, liked and respected.

"Quaglino took photographs of the wedding of Grace Kelly and Prince Rainier both inside the cathedral and in the Mairie at Monaco, where they signed the register. He was clearly allowed to go in along with the guests and to take his camera. Given all the publicity about the Rainier wedding, it is even more unusual that he was allowed to get so close up."

So how did a young Italian, apparently without wealth or fame, come to win the confidence of some of the richest and most famous figures of his era? The story of Quaglino’s archive is a story of many remarkable lives, not only those of the famous, but also of the man behind the lens and of the woman he married shortly before he died, who looked after his photographs secretly for 20 years.

Alfredo Andr Cesar Quaglino was born on 8 November, 1894 at Torino, Italy. He seems to have been a young man of some means who broke most of the connections with his family and set out to make a living for himself as a journalist. Sometime in the 1920s, he came to settle in Cagnes- sur-Mer, possibly because the Cte d’Azur was associated with his great passion - motor racing. Quaglino loved fast cars. It is known that he took part in the Biarritz-St Morritz rally on 15-19 August, 1929 in a Fiat 520 Roadster, and this is probably one race among many. In the 1920s and 1930s, a talented young motor-racing driver could rub shoulders with the rich and glamorous people the sport attracted. It was a place where a man could make connections.

"I think he started out as a journalist but he was particularly mad about racing cars and in that period that was an entry into the society of the very rich. Through those connections, he could develop his journalism. By knowing these people, that then gave him entree to other people," says Jarvis Smith.

Some of his pictures were taken for magazines and newspapers, capturing a famous face, a key event: the marriage of Rita Hayworth to the Aly Khan; Charlie Chaplin; Winston Churchill; Roberto Benzi, the child prodigy pianist, making the film Prelude a la Gloire. Quaglino also met, wrote about and photographed many of the artists who had settled in the Riviera: Picasso at his home in Mougins; Chagall, photographed in his studio in Vence; Matisse, still artistically voracious in his old age, working on a cut-out collage.

During the Second World War, Quaglino stayed in the South of France and became involved in the French Resistance. As a result, when the glitzy society of the Cte d’Azur started to sparkle again in the post war years, he was more part of it than ever. "There were no real class distinctions," says Jarvis Smith. "When you were in, you were in."

It may have been through his Resistance activities that he met the young Englishwoman all her friends knew simply as "Billy". Frances Rachel Bailey was born in 1909 at an address in Buckingham Palace Road, Belgravia, London. Her mother was Lady Gwendolyn Clarendon-Hyde, who had married Major Francis Bailey.

However, while still a very young woman, Billy left aristocratic London behind, arriving alone in Cagnes-sur-Mer between the wars. She, too, seemed to have severed all ties with her family and them with her. Though she kept the source of the split a secret all her life, friends now surmise that it may have been caused by her realisation that she was a lesbian. Certainly, the most enduring relationship of her life was with her long-term lover, travel writer Barbara Toy.

Whatever the prejudices that may have existed in upper-class London, attitudes were different on the Cte d’Azur. The area was firmly established as bohemian, even before the arrival of Paris nightclub star Suzi Solidor and her (female) partner in Haut de Cagne. Solidor’s unique art collection - she had artists of both sexes paint her, often in the nude - was gifted to a museum in the village after her death.

Like Quaglino, Billy joined the Resistance, risking her life to carry messages through parts of the Vercors mountains. The Vercors Resistance, now celebrated, suffered severely at the hands of the Nazis who destroyed whole villages in an attempt to stamp out its activities.

"For a woman who was quite clearly British to go up into the Vercors mountains with messages must have required a huge amount of courage. If the Nazis had caught her, they wouldn’t have asked any questions," says Jarvis Smith.

However they met, Billy and Quaglino were friends for many years. Alongside Quaglino’s photographs of the rich and famous are occasional photographs of Billy: tall, fair and willowy in a white bikini, walking along the surf and laughing at the camera; elegantly dressed, walking one of her succession of dogs; middle-aged and sophisticated, sharing an afternoon drink with Quaglino himself. Though both were readily accepted as part of society on the Cte d’Azur, perhaps they shared the sense of being outsiders in the world of the super-rich.

It seems that near the end of Quaglino’s life, he and Billy, who was 15 years younger, reached an understanding. If they married, she could nurse him as his health failed and perhaps, after he died, she could claim rights to draw his war pension. They were married on 13 May, 1972, in Antibes, but Quaglino’s health failed quickly and he lived only five more months. The Italian authorities refused her request for the pension, stipulating a minimum of two year’s marriage to be eligible.

Roger Cave, co-executor of Billy’s estate along with Jarvis Smith, met her in 1976 and knew her until her death in 1995, at the age of 85.

Cave says: "She was great company, tremendous fun. She was always completely at ease with everybody. She never had any money and would exist by looking after the houses of wealthy Swiss, Germans and Brits in Haut de Cagne. They gave her the keys and she would make the house ready if they were expected. She mingled with everybody in that world."

Cave says Billy revealed almost nothing about her past, and wonders whether some traumatic event she may have witnessed during her time in the Vercors Resistance caused her silence.

"She was terribly secretive," Cave says. "All the time I knew her, she never talked about her past. She wouldn’t talk about her family, it was as if she walked away from it all. After she died, I went to meet Barbara Toy and she admitted that she knew no more about Billy’s past than I did.

"Being an executor of her estate was a bit of a joke, because I knew she had nothing to leave. She lived in a single room, with a tiny kitchen and bathroom. In fact, she left an insurance policy of 30,000 equally divided between two different dogs’ homes. The photographs were an absolute eye-opener to me, I didn’t know they existed."

"I had a message that Billy was dying and would like to see me to talk about her will," remembers Jarvis Smith. "So I jumped on a plane and flew to Nice. But when I got to the hospital, she was sleeping and they suggested I come back tomorrow.

"The next day when I arrived at the hospital, the man behind the desk jumped up and ran forward and I was escorted to see her by a doctor and two nurses. She was very lucid, we had a little chat. She said the doctor had told her that she had had a visitor from the UK the previous day. She thought she’d have a little joke, so she said, ‘Yes, he’s a very good friend of mine, he’s the ex-ambassador, you know.’ And she roared with laughter. The next day she was dead."

Cave says that after her death he attempted to find out if she had any surviving relatives. "I even have her address books. I thought there might be a Bailey or a Clarendon-Hyde listed, but there was nothing, no contact with the past. I put a notice in the Telegraph after she died, but no-one contacted me."

Among her few possessions was one final intriguing photograph: a colour image cut from a magazine about the founders of Quaglinos restaurant in London, which had been cheaply framed. It suggests, Cave believes, a connection between the restaurateurs and Alfredo Quaglino.

"There has to be a reason why they framed it. Occasionally Billy would make an off-hand remark about the past. She once said something that suggested that Quaglino was the black sheep of his family, as she was of hers."

Perhaps both came to the Cte d’Azur fleeing their respective secrets. Either way, they have left behind more questions than answers, as well as a tantalising collection of images of the society in which they moved, and the rich and privileged whose paths they crossed.

• The photographic archive of Alfredo Quaglino will be auctioned as part of a sale of books and manuscripts at Lyon & Turnbull, Edinburgh, on 17 November.